In Jack Heifner’s Vanities, eleven years in the life of a trio of Texan cheerleaders are chronicled via three Polaroid scenes. Like the insatiable craving for instant anything in the ‘60s and ‘70s, they develop right before our eyes. Even before the show starts, we see Mary (Lesley Dowey), Joanne (Deborah Drakeford) and Kathy (Kimwun Perehinec) making up and taming hair at their individual vanity stations. In the background, jukebox tunes such as “It’s my Party and I’ll Cry if I Want to” and “Where the Boys Are” musically foreshadow the situations and relationship upsets to follow.
It’s 1963 in the first scene. The three women—now decked out in their school’s black and gold pom poms and tight sweaters—gather in a gymnasium to discuss, comment and pontificate on the art of dating and the drudgery of studying. It’s here where Dowey’s clean delivery (“I love that football team. There they are, out there getting killed for the school.”) and deft sense of timing (“I just turn to him and say, ‘Jim, keep your pecker in your pants.’”) hold the audience and help her co-actors stay on their toes. Everyone disses Sarah. She’s the unseen school tramp whose trashy reputation is outwardly mocked but secretly admired. Seems some things never change.
Director Joel Greenberg has let Heifner’s script do most of the talking. He gives his accomplished charges free rein and doesn’t intrude with distracting bits of business or blocking—very wise given the close quarters of Theatre in Port’s wee stage. Still, the lipstick love note etched into the mirror brings a smile. Michael Greves’ sparse but functional set (the half-moon curtains effortlessly move us in and out of the dressing area) lets the women command our attention; Eleanor Hill’s costume design (notably Kathy’s last-scene sophisticated lady and Mary’s free-love commando look) effectively mirrors both character development and the passage of time. All of this combines to produce a show that relies on the cast and their interaction to drive Heifner’s agenda home.
The metamorphosis of Joanne provides the rack for Mary and Kathy to hang their laundry: dirty or not. By the final scene she has evolved into the epitome of Lone Star republicanism. She’s married with children, leads the junior choir at church (“I work for Jesus.”) and has ended her subscription to National Geographic because of the outrageous pictures of “naked Africans.” Drakeford truly comes into her own as she uncharacteristically eschews tea for champagne and listens in growing discomfort as her best friends gradually strip away the façade of her husband’s steadfast devotion.
In the first two scenes, horrific world calamities drop the curtain (assassination) or invoke a call to action (protesting the Vietnam War). By the finale, catastrophe has struck at home. No amount of blush, rouge or lipstick can cover up the unwanted appearance of truth.
The hope (“I know something about love.”) and promise (“The pill is great.”) of the middle frame—set not coincidentally in a sorority house in the spring of 1968 (hello there Trudeaumania—the set dressing Look magazine a wonderful touch)—resonates with all who’ve lived through or revelled in the era of anything goes. The killing fields halfway around the world were—initially—blotted out by sex, drugs and daring musicals. Mary’s a conscientious believer, Kathy’s virginity is never suspect, while Joanne figures to take her degree in music. That choice is a smart payoff to the early-going disparagement of the oh-so-symbolic marching bands (“Well, there’s nothing we can do about the band. Just ignore them. They’re no good anyway. They’re all creeps.”).
Fast forward to a garden in 1974. Like any class reunion, the ravages of time and living apart have lowered the chums’ bar of commonality almost to the ground. The dreams of youth have been replaced by the monstrous individuality destroyer called society (“Just pick up a Vogue—they’ll tell you what to say.”). With the spectre of turning thirty looming on the horizon, a quiet panic sets in. Kathy has taught the value of “pep” for three years and “loathed my students because they hated me.” Mary’s travelled and slept with all takers: gender no issue with her.
The fun and games of standing on the sidelines and blindly cheering your team over a decade ago seems a faraway vision after being forced onto the field of life and having to find your own partners and score. And so we get together and attempt to recreate a past that—conveniently—has had all of its warts burned off due to selective memory.
In just two hours, Heifner’s captured our universal angst. Be sure to drop by for the humour, but stay for the thoughtful insight and top-notch production. JWR